The Yellow Admiral is the eighteenth in a sequence of consecutive historical novels that began with Master and Commander (1970), certainly the longest successful sequence of that kind ever written. A large part of the appeal that has enabled Patrick O’Brian to keep writing and inventing for so long is the device of having, so to speak, a double hero: two characters who always appear together, and who are yet different if not opposed in almost every way. Jack Aubrey is an Englishman, and in many respects conforms to a traditional stereotype. His major ability is seamanship, he is uneducated to a degree often made to seem comic, and on the surface at least he appears to be bluff, open, direct, and uncomplicated. By contrast, Stephen Maturin is half-Irish and half-Catalan, speaks several languages with total fluency, and inhabits the devious world of spies and double agents with perfect ease. Almost the only quality the two actually share is a love of music. As the relationship of the two has progressed, however, the simple oppositions above have become much more complicated. Aubrey knows nothing of books, but is a better musician than Maturin and a far better mathematician. Maturin is an intelligence agent, but capable of astonishing feats of impracticality, from which he repeatedly has to be saved. Neither man has a simple or happy relationship with the woman he loves and eventually marries, and both suffer or benefit from surprising changes of fortune.
At the end of the previous volume, The Commodore (1995), both had seemed to be set fair for prosperity, but The Yellow Admiral opens on a series of reversals. The main danger facing Aubrey is that of being “yellowed.” Promotion in the Royal Navy at this time was (past a certain point) entirely based on seniority, and nothing except death can prevent Aubrey from reaching the top of the captains’ list and becoming an admiral. He can, however, be told at that point that the Admiralty has no employment for him, in which case, instead of becoming rear- admiral of the blue (from which he would move through the red and white squadrons and up through the admirals’ ranks), he would have no ship, no post, and no promotion. He would be “yellowed,” in naval slang.
This fate might have seemed unlikely at the end of The Commodore, at which point Aubrey was not only successful, but also rich, from prize-money and from the bounty paid by the British government at that time for captains who had successfully captured slave ships running to the Americas and released the slaves. He was furthermore a rich man in his own right and a Member of Parliament, with political influence. Yet one of the features which has given O’Brian so many admirers is that his stories remain adult ones, in which good never triumphs as of right and in which the causes most cherished by the present day are seen as they were in their own time. The slave trade of the early nineteenth century was illegal in Britain and its possessions, but had not yet been abolished in America. Slavers of some nations such as Britain’s ally Portugal were immune from arrest under certain conditions, and if a naval captain stopped a ship, released the slaves, and sank the ship without scrutinizing all possible factors, the moral rightness of his actions would not save him from lawsuit and punitive damages. Having revealed a strong antipathy to lawyers in previous volumes, O’Brian remarks grimly that there is never a shortage of legal talent prepared to argue any case for a wealthy client.
Besides the threat of such cases, Aubrey faces another challenge to do with the law. At that time, England contained large areas of common land, where the rural population enjoyed customary rights to hunt, graze animals, and gather fuel. Wealthy landowners could however mount a petition in Parliament to “enclose” the land—in essence, to divide it up among themselves, excluding all those without a paper claim, however long they and their families might have used the land. Aubrey’s neighbors intend to do just this, on the grounds of national efficiency as well as personal profit. Aubrey opposes them, and as lord of the manor is in a strong position, as long as he is able to attend the parliamentary committee meeting which will decide on the enclosure petition. Unfortunately, his neighbor and enemy, Captain Griffiths, is the nephew of Aubrey’s superior officer, Admiral Lord Stranraer, who can summon him to sea at any moment.
Further strands in the tangle are that Maturin, made rich by an inheritance, has removed his fortune in gold to Spain, only to have the Spanish government discover his links with Latin American independence movements and sequester the money; and that Aubrey’s relationship with his wife is in danger from his mother-in-law and her discovery of a cache of letters from a long- past affair. The lead through the tangle, furthermore, is a theme that has interested O’Brian before and that once again has a disturbing lack of correspondence with the traditional triumphal nature of “sea-stories” and “war-stories.” This theme is luck. No one quite knows...